Montague De Courcy had dined tete-a-tete with an old uncle from whom he had no expectations, and was returning home to sup quietly with his mother and sister, when his progress was arrested by a group occupying the whole breadth of the pavement, and he heard a female voice, which, though unusually musical, had in it less of entreaty than of command, say, "Pray, sir, allow us to pass." "Not till I have seen the face that belongs to such a figure," answered one of a party of young men who were rudely obstructing the passage of the lady who had spoken. With this condition, however, she seemed not to intend compliance; for she had doubled her veil, and pertinaciously resisted the attempts of her persecutor to raise it.
De Courcy had a rooted antipathy to all manner of violence and oppression, especially when exercised against the more defenceless part of the creation; and he no sooner ascertained these circumstances, than, with one thrust of his muscular arm (which, to say the truth, was more than a match for half a dozen of the puny fry of sloth and intemperance), he opened a passage for the lady and her companion; steadily detained her tormentors till she had made good her retreat; and then, leaving the gentlemen to answer, as they best could, to their own interrogatories of "What do you mean?" and "Who the d--l are you?" he followed the rescued damsel, with whose appearance, considering the place and the hour, he was extremely surprised.
Her height, which certainly rose above the beautiful, perhaps even exceeded the majestic; her figure, though slender, was admirably proportioned, and had all the appropriate roundness of the feminine form; her dress, though simple, and of matronly decency, was not unfashionable; while the dignity of her gait, and the composure of her motion, suited well with the majesty of her stature and mien.
While De Courcy was making these observations, he had offered the lady his arm, which she accepted, and his escort home, which she declined, saying that she would take refuge in a shop till a coach could be procured. Nor was he less attentive to her companion, although the latter was a little, elderly, vulgar-looking woman, imperfections which would have utterly disqualified her for the civility of many a polite gentleman.
This person had no sooner recovered the breath of which her supposed danger, and the speed of her escape from it, had deprived her, than she began, with extreme volubility, to comment upon her adventure. "Well," cried she, "if that was not the most forwardest thing ever I seed. I am sure I have comed home afore now of an evening a matter of five hunder times, and never met with no such thing in my life. But it's all along of my being so saving of your money; for I might have took a coach as you'd have had me; but it's no longer ago nor last week, as I comed from my tea, at that very Mr Wilkins's, later nor this, and nobody so much as spoke to me; but catch me penny wise again. Howsoever, it's partlins your own doings; for if you hadn't staid so long a-looking at the pictures in the shop, we shouldn't have met with them there men. Howsoever, Miss Montreville, you did right enough not to let that there jackanapes see your face, otherwise we mightn't have got off from them fellors to-night."
The curiosity of De Courcy thus directed, overcame his habitual dislike to staring, and rivetted his eyes on a face, which, once seen, was destined never to be forgotten. Her luxuriant hair (which De Courcy at first thought black, though he afterwards corrected this opinion) was carelessly divided on a forehead whose spotless whiteness was varied only by the blue of a vein that shone through the transparent skin. As she raised her mild religious dark grey eyes, their silken lashes rested on the well-defined but delicate eye-brow; or, when her glance fell before the gaze of admiration, threw a long shade on a cheek of unequalled beauty, both for form and colour. The contour of her features, inclining to the Roman, might perhaps have been called masculine, had it not been softened to the sweetest model of maiden loveliness, by the delicacy of its size and colouring. The glowing scarlet of the lips formed a contrast with a complexion constitutionally pale, but varying every moment; while round her easily but firmly closing mouth, lurked not a trace of the sensual or the vain, but all was calm benevolence and saintly purity.
In the contemplation of a countenance, the perfect symmetry of which was its meanest charm, De Courcy, who was a physiognomist, suffered the stream of time, as well as that of Mrs Dawkins's eloquence, to flow on without notice, and first became sensible that he had profited by neither, when the shop-boy announced that the coach was at the door. While handing the ladies into the carriage, De Courcy again offered his attendance, which Laura, gracefully thanking him for his attentions, again declined, and they drove off just as he was about to inquire where they chose to be set down.
Now, whether it was that Laura was offended at De Courcy's inspection of her face, or whether she saw any thing disagreeable in his; whether it was that her pride disdained lodgings in Holborn, or that she desired not to be recognised by one who had met with her in such a situation, certain it is, that she chose the moment when that gentleman was placing her voluble companion in the coach to give the coachman her directions, in sounds that escaped the ears of De Courcy. As he had no means of remedying this misfortune, he walked home, and philosophically endeavoured to forget it in a game at chess with his mother. The fidelity of a historian, however, obliges us to confess, that he this evening played in a manner that would have disgraced a school-boy. After mistaking his antagonist's men for his own, playing into check, throwing away his pieces, and making false moves, he answered his mother's question of "Montague, what are you doing?" by pushing back his chair, and exclaiming, "Mother, you never beheld such a woman!"
"Woman!" repeated Mrs De Courcy, settling her spectacles, and looking him full in the face. "Woman!" said his sister, laying down Bruyere; "who is she!"
"I know not," answered De Courcy; "but had Lavater seen her, he could scarcely have believed her human."
"What is her name?"
"The woman who attended her called her Montreville."
"Where did you meet her?"
"In the street."
"In the street!" cried Harriet, laughing; "oh, Montague, this is not half sentimental enough for you. You should have found her all in a shady bower, playing on a harp that came there nobody knows how; or, all elegant in India muslin, dandling a beggar's brat in a dirty cottage. But let us hear the whole adventure."
"I have already told you all I know," answered De Courcy. "Now, Madam, will you give me my revenge."
"No, no," said Mrs De Courcy, "I will play no more; I should have no glory in conquering such a defenceless enemy."
"Well, then," said Montague, good-humouredly, "give me leave to read to you, for I would rather amuse you and Harriet in any other way than by sitting quietly to be laughed at."
After the ladies had retired for the night, De Courcy meditated for full five minutes on the descent from Laura Montreville's forehead to her nose, and bestowed a proportionable degree of consideration upon other important lines in her physiognomy; but it must be confessed, that by the time he arrived at the dimple in her left cheek, he had forgotten both Lavater and his opinions, and that his recollection of her mouth was somewhat confused by that of her parting smile, which he more than once declared aloud to himself was "heavenly." We are credibly informed, that he repeated the same expression three times in his sleep; and whether it was that his dreams reminded him of Mrs Dawkins's eloquence, or whether his memory was refreshed by his slumbers, he had not been long awake before he recollected that he had heard that lady mention a Mr Wilkins, and hint that he kept a print-shop. By a proper application to the London Directory, he easily discovered the print-seller's abode, and thither he that very day repaired.
Mr Wilkins was not in the shop when De Courcy entered it, but the shop-boy said his master would be there in a minute. This minute appearing to De Courcy of unusual length, he, to while it away, began to examine the prints which hung round. His eye was presently attracted by the only oil picture in the shop, and his attention was fixed by observing, that it presented a striking resemblance of his old school-fellow Hargrave. He turned to make some inquiry of the shop-boy when Mr Wilkins came in, and his interest reverted to a different object. The question, however, which he had come to ask, and which to ask would have three minutes before appeared the simplest thing in the world, now faltered on his tongue; and it was not without something like hesitation, that he inquired whether Mr Wilkins knew a Miss Montreville. Desirous to oblige a person of De Courcy's appearance, Wilkins immediately related all that he knew of Laura, either from his own observation, or from the report of her loquacious landlady; and perceiving that he was listened to with attention, he proceeded further to detail his conjectures. "This picture is painted by her," said he, "and I rather think the old captain can't be very rich, she seemed so anxious to have it sold."
De Courcy again turned to the picture, which he had before examined; and on this second inspection was so fortunate as to discover that it bore the stamp of great genius, an opinion in which, we believe, he would have been joined by any man of four-and-twenty who had seen the artist. "So," thought he, "this lovely creature's genius is equal to her beauty, and her worth perhaps surpasses both, for she has the courage to rise superior to the silly customs of the world, and can dare to be useful to herself and others. I knew by the noble arching of her forehead that she was above all vulgar prejudice;" and he admired Laura the more for being a favourable instance of his own penetration--a feeling so natural, that it lessens even our enmity to the wicked, when we ourselves have predicted their vices. It must be owned that De Courcy was a little hasty in his judgment of Laura's worth, but the sight of such a face as hers gives great speed to a young man's decision upon female character. He instantly purchased the picture; and recollecting that it is highly proper to patronise genius and industry, he desired Mr Wilkins to beg that a companion to it might be painted. He then returned home, leaving orders that his purchase should follow him immediately.
Though nature, a private education and studious habits, made De Courcy rather reserved to strangers, he was in his domestic circle one of the most communicative persons in the world; and the moment he saw his mother, he began to inform her of the discoveries he had made that morning. "Montreville!" said Mrs De Courcy, when he had ended;" can that be William Montreville who was in the ---- regiment when your father was the major of it?"
"Most likely it is," said Montague, eagerly.
"Many a time did he hold you upon his horse, and many a paper kite did he make for you."
"It must be the same," said Montague; " the name is not a common one--it certainly must be the same."
"I can hardly believe it," said Mrs De Courcy; "William Montreville married that strange imprudent woman, Lady Harriet Bircham. Poor Montreville! he deserved a better wife."
"It cannot be he," said De Courcy, sorrowfully; "no such woman could be the mother of Miss Montreville!"
"He settled in Scotland immediately after his marriage," continued Mrs De Courcy, "and since that time I have never heard of him."
"It is the same then," said Montague, his countenance lightening with pleasure, "for Miss Montreville is a Scotch woman. I remember his kindness. I think I almost recollect his face. He used to set me on his knee, and sing to me; and when he sang the Babes in the Wood, I pretended to go to sleep in his bosom, for I thought it not manly to cry; but when I looked up, I saw the tears standing in his own eyes. I will go and see my old friend this very hour."
"You have forgotten," said Mrs De Courcy, "that you promised to escort Harriet to the Park, and she will be disappointed if you engage yourself elsewhere."
De Courcy, who would have postponed any personal gratification rather than disappoint the meanest servant in his household, instantly agreed to defer his visit; and as it had never occurred to him that the claims of relationship were incompatible with those of politeness, he did not once during their walk insinuate to his sister that he would have preferred another engagement.
Never had he, either as a physiognomist or as a man, admired any woman so much as he did Laura; yet her charms were no longer his only, or even his chief, magnet of attraction towards the Montrevilles. Never before had any assemblage of features possessed such power over him, but De Courcy's was not a heart on which mere beauty could make any very permanent impression; and, to the eternal disgrace of his gallantry, it must be confessed that he scarcely longed more for a second interview with Laura, than he did for an opportunity of paying some grateful civilities to the man who, twenty years before, had good-naturedly forgone the society of his equals in age, to sing ballads and make paper kites for little Montague. Whatever member of the family occupied most of his thoughts, certain it is that he spoke much more that evening of Captain Montreville than of his daughter, until the arrival of the painting afforded him occasion to enlarge on her genius, industry, and freedom from vulgar prejudice. On these he continued to descant, till Mrs De Courcy smiled, and Harriet laughed outright; a liberty at which Montague testified his displeasure, by carefully avoiding the subject for the rest of the evening.
Meanwhile the ungrateful Laura had never, from the hour in which they met, bestowed one thought upon her champion. The blackness of his eyes, and the whiteness of his teeth, had entirely escaped her observation; and even if she had been asked whether he was tall or short, she could scarcely have given a satisfactory reply. For this extraordinary stupidity, the only excuse is, that her heart was already occupied, the reader knows how, and that her thoughts were engrossed by an intention which her father had mentioned, of borrowing money upon his half-pay.
Though Laura had never known affluence, she was equally a stranger to all the shames, the distresses, and embarrassments of a debtor; and the thoughts of borrowing what she could not hope by any economy to repay, gave to her upright mind the most cutting uneasiness. But no resource remained; for even if Captain Montreville could have quitted London within the hour, he had not the means of defraying the expense of the journey. Warren's promises had hitherto produced nothing but hope, and there was no immediate prospect that the payment of the annuity would relieve the difficulty.
Laura turned a despairing wish towards her picture, lamenting that she had ever formed her presumptuous scheme, and hating herself for having, by her presence, increased the perplexities of her father. She prevailed on him, however, to defer borrowing the money till the following day; and once more, accompanied by Julia, bent her almost hopeless steps towards the print-shop.
Silent and melancholy she passed on, equally regardless of the admiration which she occasionally extorted, and of the animadversions called forth by the appearance of so elegant a woman on foot, in the streets of the city. As she entered the shop, she cast a half despairing look towards the place where her picture had hung, and her heart leapt when she perceived that it was gone. "Well, ma'am," said Wilkins, approaching her," it is sold at last, and here is the money;" and he put into her hands by far the largest sum they had ever contained. "You may have as much more whenever you please," continued he, "for the gentleman who bought it wants a companion painted."
Laura spoke not--she had not indeed the power to speak; but she raised her eyes with a look that intelligibly said, "Blessed Father! thy tender mercies are over all thy works." Recollecting herself, she thanked Wilkins, liberally rewarded him for his trouble, and then, taking her companion by the arm, she hastened homewards.
The sight of Laura's wealth powerfully affected the mind of Miss Dawkins, and she formed an immediate resolution to grow rich by similar means. One little objection to this scheme occurred to her, namely, that she had learnt to draw only flowers, and that even this humble branch of the art she had discontinued since she left school. But she thought that a little practice would repair what she had lost, and that though perhaps flowers might not be quite so productive as historical pieces, she might better her fortune by her works; at the least, they would furnish her with clothes and pocket- money. Upon this judicious plan, she harangued with great volubility to Laura, who, buried in her own reflections walked silently on, unconscious even of the presence of her loquacious companion.
As she approached her home, she began to frame a little speech, with which she meant to present her treasure to her father ; and on entering the house, she flew with a beating heart to find him. She laid her wealth upon his knee. "My dearest father," she began, "the picture--" and she fell upon his neck and burst into tears. Sympathetic tears stood in the eyes of Montreville. He had been surprised at the stoicism with which his daughter appeared to him to support her disappointment, and he was not prepared to expect from her so much sensibility to success. But though Laura had learnt from frequent experience how to cheek the feelings of disappointment, to pleasure such as she now felt she was new, and she could not control its emotions. So far was she, however, from thinking that sensibility was bestowed merely for an ornament (an opinion which many fair ladies appear to entertain), that the expression of it was always with her an occasion of shame. Unable at this moment to contain herself, she burst from her father's embrace; and hiding herself in her chamber, poured forth a fervent thanksgiving to Him who "feedeth the ravens when they cry to him."
"This money is yours, my love," said Captain Montreville to her when she returned to the parlour. "I cannot bear to rob you of it. Take it, and you can supply me when I am in want of it." The face and neck of Laura flushed crimson. Her whole soul revolted at the thought of her father's feeling himself a pensioner on her bounty. "No, indeed, sir," she replied with energy, "it is yours--it always was intended for you. But for you I could never have acquired it." "I will not disappoint your generosity, my dearest," said Montreville; "part I will receive from you, but the rest you must keep. I know you must have many little wants." "No, papa," said Laura, "so liberal has your kindness been to me, that I cannot at this moment name a single want." "Wishes, then, you surely have," said the captain, still pressing the money upon her; "and let the first fruits of your industry supply them." "I have no wishes," said Laura; "none at least which money can gratify; and when I have," added she with an affectionate smile, "let their gratification come from you, that its pleasure may be doubled to me."
No creature could less value money for its own sake than did Laura. All her wealth, the fruit of so much labour and anxiety, would not have purchased the attire of a fashionable lady for one evening. She, who had been accustomed to wander in happy freedom among her native hills, was imprisoned amidst the smoke and dust of a city. Without a companion, almost without an acquaintance, to invigorate her spirit for the task, it was her province to revive the fainting hopes and beguile the tedium of her father, who was depressed by disappointment in his pursuits, and disconcerted by the absence of his accustomed employments. She was at a distance from the object not only of a tender affection but of a romantic passion; a passion ardent in proportion as its object was indebted to her imagination for his power. Scarce three months had elapsed since the depravity of this idolised being had burst on her in thunder; the thought of it was still daggers to her heart; and it was very doubtful whether he ever could give such proofs of reformation as would make it safe for her to restore him to his place in her regard. Yet be it known to all who, from similar circumstances, feel entitled to fancy themselves miserable, and thus (if they live with beings of common humanity) make others really so, that no woman ever passed an evening in more heartfelt content, than Laura did that which our history is now recording. She did, indeed, possess that which, next to the overflowings of a pious heart, confers the purest happiness on this side Heaven. She felt that she was USEFUL. Nay, in "one respect the consciousness of a successful discharge of duty has the advantage over the fervours of devotion; for Providence, wise in its bounty, has decreed, that while these foretastes of heavenly rapture are transient, lest their delights should detach us from the business of life, we are invited to a religious practice by the permanence of its joys.
This presentation of Self Control: A Novel, by Mary Brunton is Copyright 2003 by P.J. LaBrocca. It may not be copied, duplicated, stored or transmitted in any form without written permission. The text is in the public domain.